Their proximity to one of the largest private game reserves on the African continent, the Save Valley Conservancy, has come as a curse in recent years, as the conservancy has failed to contain wild life from escaping the perimeter fence, constantly causing havoc to the district.
The situation has been compounded by the conservancy’s lukewarm response to the plight of the villagers, creating an acrimonious co-habitation between humans and wildlife.
While abnormal is the new usual here, the recent cyclone Idai aggravated pains for these villagers, who on top of grappling with constant losses of livestock to marauding lions from the conservancy, villagers of Uteke and surrounding areas of Bikita east district in Masvingo province know no peace.
They woke up to roofs blown-huts crushed, by the heavy rains further exposing them to wildlife predators.
“We can only thank God we are alive,” 87 year old Dzerendende Moyo, who narrowly escaped from a crushing hut during the heavy rains, narrated his ordeal.
“I narrowly got trapped inside but I managed to get outside before I could recover goods in the hut. My wife was in the other hut, in the kitchen which managed to survive the hailstorm,” he added.
Moyo and his wife and grandchildren now live in a single hut since disaster struck about two weeks ago.
But the greatest challenge is fear of the marauding wildlife.
“Most people have lost cattle in these parts and it has left us with nothing,” added Moyo.
An estimate of over 1000 cattle in total have been devoured by errant lions since 2017 in wards 24 and 25 of Bikita East constituency, the locals here say.
A list of casualties compiled by villagers which have since been handed over to the constituency member of Parliament, Johnson Madhuku are testimony of the numbers escalating in coming months if the situation is left unabated.
“It’s over 1000, I have a database that I compiled, and some lost 10 cattle, some 20 and so on. So I’m appealing to the government to say conservancy operators are the beneficiaries, they are the ones running that business but at the same time wild animals are coming out to the villages, they are actually making people poorer than before,”
‘You can imagine over 1000 cattle being marauded in less than two wards within a space of two years. So we are making those people poorer than before and moreover their harvests are extremely affected because the elephants come in to eat their crops before they are ripe, so we appeal to the conservancy operators to set up electric fence,” said Madhuku.
The situation is getting worse by each day.
Since cyclone Idai swept through, some areas within Bikita east remain murky, hence an increased frequency in lions spotted within the area which are believed not to be from the conservancy, but wild ones that have relocated into the mountains as they trekked west-wards away from the floods in Manicaland.
“Yes they have been affected by cyclones. They have come to the community and they are breeding from there , and they come down to devour cattle, so it’s not just the lions in the conservancy but also those that are now living within the community in the mountains, so cattle are being devoured in full watch of the cattle herders,’’ added Madhuku.
But authorities seem to have a different appreciation of the magnitude of the situation at hand.
Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority spokesperson, Tinashe Farawo said they are aware of human-wildlife conflict in the area but estimate the casualties might be exaggerated.
“We have received such reports and we have deployed our officers to deal with that. We have also established permanent bases around that area to deal with those concerns. We are encouraging communities to ensure that they at least let us know because such things we respond within the shortest time,”
How did they arrive at such a figure? That figure is far-fetched, but what I can do is I can find out,” Farawo added.
Assistance to these affected areas has been trickling in to help the more than 3412 homesteads that were wrecked by the heavy rains in Bikita.
The death toll has risen to seven while 309 of villagers have been left homeless, according to Acting Bikita District Administrator, Innocent Matingwina who also revealed challenges affecting the authorities in the distribution exercise of food and other materials.
“We have bridges broken, particularly in ward 27, where some people are stranded there and we haven’t been able to get there to offer assistance,” said Matingwina.
The challenge facing most of the villagers here is that of lack of construction materials to rebuild their homes.
Philanthropists, Adam Molai Foundation has been amongst the first to offer assistance to Masvingo affected areas as much attention has been rendered towards victims in Chimanimani area.
“Our doctors are going to be assisting people in this area as well and we have split our $ 250 000 worth of goods between victims of both Masvingo and Manicaland having noted Masvingo survivors were being overlooked,” said Nomagugu Matibiri, the foundation’s programme coordinator.
The survivors of Bikita east remain ostracized in this time of need, post-cyclone Idai and can only hope the heavens above relent and save them from both the marauding wildlife predators and the ghastly waters that almost swept them into oblivion.